Wednesday, February 28, 2007

"Fundamentally Unsound" (from The New York Times)

Published February 18, 2007

Pound Ridge, N.Y. -- No one is surprised when environmental groups object to big development projects. But when independent scientists, state agencies and even the federal government raise serious questions about a project it’s time to stop and reconsider.

The project is the proposal by Broadwater Energy, a partnership of the Shell Oil Company and TransCanada Corporation, to build a huge, floating liquefied natural gas terminal in Long Island Sound. And the only conclusion one can come to after reading what scientists and government agencies say about the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission’s study of the environmental impact of the project is that it’s time to declare a do-over.

So many flaws, omissions and mistakes have been found in the commission’s draft environmental statement, that a full-blown supplement, complete with public review, hearings and written comments, is the only way those of us who live near the Sound will be able to determine if the project is acceptable or an environmental disaster.

There’s a precedent for doing a supplement statement: about 20 years ago, the Coast Guard was conducting the environmental review of a proposal to build 2,000 luxury condominiums on Davids Island, off New Rochelle. The draft impact statement was so inadequate that the Coast Guard issued a supplemental study, which added about a year to the review process — and led ultimately to the project’s demise.

And this project is much larger and much more unusual. In this case, Broadwater wants to build and moor a floating terminal in New York’s portion of the Sound, about 9 miles north of Riverhead and 11 miles south of Branford, Conn. Every two or three days, tankers would bring in cooled liquefied natural gas, which would be converted back to a gas at the terminal and sent through pipelines to energy markets in the northeast. The terminal would be about a quarter of a mile long.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission began working on the environmental impact statement about a year ago and released its draft late last year for public review, declaring that the project would not have a negative affect on the environment.

Predictably, environmental groups say that Broadwater’s terminal is a disaster for the Sound, while business groups say it is essential to keeping energy costs under control. But what is unusual — and devastating — about the impact statement is that scientists and government agencies are virtually unanimous in declaring it inadequate.

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service and Environmental Protection Agency, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the New York State Office of General Services and Department of Environmental Conservation, the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, and the Connecticut Liquefied Natural Gas Task Force all argue that there’s simply not enough information and rigorous analysis in the impact study to decide if the environmental impact of the project outweighs the benefits.

On the contrary, Ralph Lewis, the former Connecticut state geologist and a geology professor at the University of Connecticut, has called the study’s analysis mediocre. He likened it to an undergraduate term paper that would earn a C-minus grade.

The National Marine Fisheries Service said, for example, that safety zones surrounding the terminal and the tankers would make the publicly-owned waters of the Sound off-limits to fishermen. But, the service said, the analysis of how this would affect the fishermen was inadequate.

The United States Fish and Wildlife Service noted that when the terminal and tankers draw in cooling water from the Sound, they will destroy 275 million fish larvae and fish eggs a year, but that a more detailed analysis was needed. It also said the impact statement inadequately examined the effects on endangered species and migrating birds.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration wrote that “It is premature for us to make final project recommendations until the necessary information becomes available.” And the Environmental Protection Agency said there was “insufficient information” to judge air quality concerns.

Broadwater’s floating terminal would be the first of its kind in the United States. No one should take lightly this attempt to put a major industrial facility in the middle of the Sound, which Congress has declared to be an estuary of national significance. Advocates have weighed in. But when scientists and government officials make a compelling case that the environmental studies are just not good enough, then the study needs to be redone.

Tom Andersen is the author of “This Fine Piece of Water: An Environmental History of Long Island Sound."

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Who Is Killing Long Island Sound? (from The New York Times)

Published: September 3, 2006

Pound Ridge, N.Y. -- Eight years ago, Connecticut, New York and federal officials vowed to work together to prevent Long Island Sound from turning into a vast dead zone incapable of supporting striped bass, flounder, porgies, scup and other fish.

They agreed that they would reduce the pollutants — particularly nitrogen in treated sewage — that cause oxygen levels to plummet in the western half of the Sound. (Healthy concentrations of oxygen are essential to a marine ecosystem and the creatures that live in it.) The goal was a 58.5 percent reduction, and Connecticut moved so aggressively on a well-financed plan to improve sewage plants that within a few years it was almost halfway toward its goal.

The result was that the Sound enjoyed a period of small but measurable water quality improvements.

In each of the last five summers, however, water quality in the Sound has been about as bad as it’s ever been. Oxygen levels have fallen close to zero in more than 300 square miles, from roughly Bridgeport, Conn., and Long Island’s Huntington Bay to City Island in the Bronx.

Yet just when efforts to save the Sound should be increasing, the Connecticut Legislature is doing the opposite. It is backing off its cleanup commitment by slashing money for sewage plant improvements. This is particularly distressing not just because of the ecological implications but because Connecticut had been the leader in the cleanup, surpassing both New York State and New York City.

After the 1998 cleanup agreement (and for several years before in anticipation of it), the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection worked with local communities, which own sewage plants in Connecticut that empty into the Sound, to plan for nitrogen reduction, and then helped to finance the sewage plant improvements. Connecticut’s mechanism was the Clean Water Fund, through which it provided grants for up to 30 percent of the nitrogen removal costs and 2 percent loans to cover the rest.

From 1987 through 2002, Connecticut put an average of $47.9 million a year into the Clean Water Fund. But that changed starting in 2003, when the Connecticut Legislature began taking money out of the fund, including $18 million in 2003 and $60 million in 2004, and using it for other projects, like road building and transportation initiatives. The Department of Environmental Protection had little choice but to scale back its nitrogen reduction program drastically.

By how much? In 2005, Connecticut treatment plants discharged 4,947 tons of nitrogen. For 2006, the Connecticut D.E.P. had planned to require a further 17 percent reduction, to 4,110 tons, thereby getting that much closer to the 58.5 percent goal.

Instead, the Connecticut D.E.P. cut back on grants and loans — and on the size of the nitrogen reduction it will require. Rather than 17 percent, or 750 tons, it settled on a reduction of 1.1 percent, or just 55 tons for 2006.

New York, on the other hand, has become the tortoise that might reach the nitrogen reduction goal of 58.5 percent first. Taken together, the treatment plants in New York that discharge into New York’s part of the Sound have achieved a 19 percent cut in nitrogen discharges. And New York City, which has four big treatment plants that empty into the western end of the Sound, agreed earlier this year to follow a nitrogen reduction schedule mandated by state officials. In return, the city will get an extra three years, until 2017, to reach its 58.5 percent goal.

But with Connecticut’s share of the Sound cleanup stalled, far too much nitrogen will continue to enter the water, where it will encourage the growth of the algae that make up most of the Sound’s plankton. The algae will then die and decompose, consuming oxygen in the process.

It’s worth recalling what low oxygen levels can mean. In 1987, virtually every harbor from New York City’s Eastchester Bay in the west to Bridgeport, Conn., and Huntington farther east saw vast fish kills from late July through late August. Two years later there were fewer fish kills, but the near zero levels of oxygen had spread almost to New Haven.

Those dire conditions led to the cleanup plan. And for a few years, oxygen levels improved. But in 2002, perhaps because of unusually warm and rainy weather, the area with the lowest oxygen levels began to grow, spreading across the waters of Westchester, Nassau and Fairfield Counties. And by last summer, the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection found oxygen readings as low as 0.5 milligrams per liter off Greenwich, Conn. (In an estuary where 8 milligrams per liter is ideal, and 3.5 is the minimum for acceptable water quality, 0.5 signals an ecosystem in crisis.) But the conditions drew little attention — so little, in fact, that the Connecticut General Assembly was able to continue ignoring the Clean Water Fund with impunity.

Several environmental groups in Connecticut tried to persuade legislators to restore money for the program. But in the end they were rejected.

This is a shame. Long Island Sound is both an irreplaceable ecological resource and an important economic resource. According to a study by a University of Connecticut economist, the Sound contributes $5.5 billion a year to New York’s and Connecticut’s economies.

For the ecological and economic values to be protected, Connecticut’s sewage treatment plants need to be upgraded. And the only way to do that is for the Connecticut General Assembly to return to session and come to an agreement with the governor to restore the Clean Water Fund.

Tom Andersen is the author of “This Fine Piece of Water: An Environmental History of Long Island Sound.”

Saturday, October 08, 2005

The Saga of Long Island Sound's Sea Turtles (written in '90 for This Fine Piece of Water but didn't make the cut)

The first Kemp’s ridley floated ashore, camouflaged by rockweed and sea lettuce, at a beach in Riverhead, Long Island, on November 12, 1985. Others followed. The tides and gentle waves carried them up and back, washed them toward the Sound’s beaches, and dropped them in a dark line of tide wrack on the gravel and sand. Most of the turtles were dead. Three were barely alive.

Usually, when a large dead sea creature comes to rest on a beach in New York, Sam Sadove hears about it, sets out in his pickup truck, and carts it away. Sadove is the research director of the Okeanos Ocean Research Foundation, which has a contract with the State of New York to keep the state’s beaches clean of dead marine animals, generally whales and dolphins on Long Island’s Atlantic shore. Sadove is a marine mammalogist, and any whale or dolphin he finds on a beach is his for dissection and necropsy. But autumn and winter are the slow season for this kind of work, so in November of 1985 he traveled to a conference in Vancouver, British Columbia, confident that little would happen in his absence.

In fact, the events he missed marked the start of a drastic change in the way scientists think about the rarest of the world’s seven species of sea turtles.

“I came back from Vancouver and the staff told me we had three live ridleys,” Sadove recalled, “and I said, ‘What the hell do you mean, live ridleys?’ ”

Kemp's Ridley Turtle poster

For the next month and a half, Okeanos, an organization based in Hampton Bays, Long Island, recovered an average of one ridley a day, forty-five in all. Forty percent had been washed up onto the fifteen miles of beach between Wading River and Riverhead. On December 8 alone, the island’s North Shore became the resting place of seven ridleys, a green turtle, and a loggerhead turtle — their final resting place, as it turned out, for as the temperature of the Sound dropped with winter’s onset, the sea turtles, which are cold-blooded, had no chance. Water that in early November might have left turtles stunned and comatose, but still alive, in December killed them. The three ridleys recovered by Okeanos when Sadove was in Canada, and several others that bobbed ashore soon after his return, were lucky to be living.

Alive or dead, the appearance of a Kemp’s ridley turtle in Long Island Sound in November was considered extremely unusual. Anne Meylan, a herpetologist on the staff of the American Museum of Natural History, told me that whenever she heard of foundling Kemp’s ridleys she assumed the reports were wrong: the level of familiarity with sea turtles in general is low, and the Kemp’s ridley in particular can be hard to put a name on.

"The species has a history of being misidentified," she said. "I didn’t believe they were ridleys until I laid eyes on them."

My first look at a ridley came on a winter’s morning when I visited Meylan at the museum. I met her at a side entrance, before the museum opened for the day, and followed her through a maze of dark exhibition halls to her windowless laboratory. On a table was a handwritten reminder: "Thaw out turtles." Nearby, in a jar, a preserved specimen floated nose up. A label said the carcass had been found in Riverhead, on December 8, 1985 — it was one of the seven recovered on that busiest day of the stranding season.

Meylan opened the jar, lifted the turtle out of its pickling liquid, and showed me how to identify it.

She ran her finger along the carapace, or upper shell. "The diagnostic characteristics are the shape of the carapace — it’s almost round," she said. "They’re the only turtle that can be wider than they are long." This turtle’s shell resembled a soup dish, about a foot in diameter, and was the color of wet slate. She counted the costal scutes, the plates that run along the edge of the carapace. Five on the left, five on the right, which narrowed the choices: if I had found this turtle on a beach on the east coast of the United States I could assume it was a loggerhead or a Kemp’s ridley. She turned the animal over and counted the inframarginal scutes, the plates on the bridge that separates the carapace from the plastron. Each side had four. That clinched it. This was a Kemp’s ridley, one of two hundred and eighty sea turtles that have been seen in or recovered from the waters around Long Island since 1985. More than half of those have been in the Sound, and one hundred sixteen have been ridleys, each one, on average, weighing about nine pounds and with a shell-length of almost twelve inches.

"These large numbers of Kemp’s ridleys," wrote Steve Morreale, Okeanos’s director of sea turtle research, "represent the largest concentrations of this species ever reported outside of the Gulf of Mexico and greatly exceed all previous records in northeastern waters."

Volunteer beach-combers have plucked turtles from the gravel strands running west from Orient Point to Sands Point. Pound net fishermen working the North Fork have scooped them out of traps. Morreale has tracked them across the Sound to Stratford, Connecticut, and west almost to Throgs Neck. And everywhere, it seems, people who are interested in sea turtles have perked up at the news, which has thrust this poorly understood creature, seemingly as dim-witted as they come but with origins contemporaneous with the dinosaurs, into prominence like never before.

Seeking pronouncements and explanations, many who hoped to learn what was going on called Archie Carr, the scientist who, until his death in 1987, was considered the world’s expert on sea turtles. In a column published in Animal Kingdom magazine, Carr noted that following the sightings and strandings in New York, "an epidemic of curiosity erupted."

"I was never before so beset by telephone inquiries," he wrote.

Those who lay siege to his phone included me. I reached him at his home, near Gainesville, where he was graduate research professor at the University of Florida. He seemed happy to talk — happy to tell me, like all others, that my hopes of answering many questions about the Kemp’s ridley were a fantasy.

The one thing scientists are most sure of about the ridley, he said, is that they know very little — which, I later learned, was the kind of debunking assertion that Archie Carr was fond of. In a paper published in 1980, for example, he had tweaked the scientific community, himself included, when he wrote that "an impressive feature of the recent World Conference on Sea Turtle Conservation … was the elementary state of our knowledge of their ecology."

That knowledge is so elementary, he told me over the phone, that zoologists have little idea where Kemp’s ridleys spend their lives — whether it is in bays or estuaries, in the open ocean, in deep water or coastal shallows. "It’s quite possible," he said, "that there’s been lots of ridleys in Long Island Sound that we’ve never known of."

It turns out, though, that Carr had had more than just an inkling that ridleys regularly migrated north in greater numbers than anyone knew for sure. In the 1980 paper, which was published in a journal called American Zoology, he had noted: "Numerous … recent records suggest that New England might be a regular station in the developmental ecology of a part of the species."

He was alluding, in part, to what Meylan had referred to — the species’ history of being misidentified. For years in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, museums had collected small sea turtles taken from northern waters, labeled the specimens Caretta — the genus of the loggerhead turtle — and stored them away, all but forgotten, in the institutions’ collections. Then in the 1930s, Carr wrote, scientists who were only recently persuaded that the Kemp’s ridley was a distinct species began rummaging through the specimen cases for another look. The re-examinations showed that many of the sea turtles were not Caretta at all, but Lepidochelys kempi, the Kemp’s ridley. And, if the preserved remains were not enough, fresher evidence confronted researchers: a flotilla of ridleys caught in Buzzards Bay one summer in the 1930s, for example; a ridley, stunned by the cold waters of Vineyard Sound, recovered from a beach on Martha’s Vineyard in the spring of 1956.

But the turtles that Okeanos was finding were in New York, not New England, and so in 1985 and 1986, Anne Meylan — a former student of Carr’s — and the scientists at Okeanos conducted their own historical search. They discovered that a man walking a beach in the North Fork town of Southold one day in 1924 had come upon one hundred and three dead sea turtles, both ridleys and loggerheads. [Morreale, Meylan, Brigitte Baumann] They found two ridleys taken from the Sound, one in the 1930s, one in the 1950s, in a collection at a museum in Albany. They ferreted out a paper published in the Bulletin of the New York Zoological Society, in 1931, which said ridleys "are frequent summer visitants to Northern harbors" and are "the species most commonly found in New York waters." And they found a paper that listed the shell of a small turtle — a ridley or a loggerhead — among the artifacts dug up by archaeologists on Long Island at a prehistoric Indian site.

A truth was emerging, one far different from the conventional wisdom of previous decades.
Carr told me he believed the ridleys made their way north from the Gulf of Mexico via the Gulf Stream. As the stream flows past North America’s east coast, he said, warm eddies break away and swirl over the Continental Shelf. The ridleys probably get caught in the eddies, which probably carry them toward the Sound.

"It’s a complicated thing and other people have opinions," he said, "but I’ve thought about it longer than anybody. It was a puzzle to me then and it’s a puzzle to me now."

He added, "I’m sorry I can’t give you a more definite piece of information, but anybody that does, you must distrust him."

From Archie Carr that was sage advice, for he had spent forty years searching for the most important information of all about the Kemp’s ridley.


"The lights went out. A switch snapped and the screen lit up with an aerial view of a long, straight beach, bordered by broad surf .... the cameraman ... turned his lens down the shore. And there it was, the arribada as the Mexicans call it — the arrival — the incredible crowning culmination of the ridley mystery. Out there, suddenly in clear view, was a solid mile of ridleys. ... You could have run a whole mile down the beach on the backs of the turtles and never set foot on the sand."

In his book So Excellent a Fishe, Carr described how the scientific world came to learn where and how — via a film he first saw in 1961 — the Kemp’s ridley nests. It was a short film, in black and white, faded and scratchy with age. But its technical qualities were irrelevant. "For me really, it was the movie of all time," Carr wrote.

The film was made by Andrés Herrera, a Mexican engineer, who had heard about a sea turtle spectacle so great it overwhelmed a beach north of his home, in Tampico, in the Mexican state of Tamaulipa: "It was said they came ashore there on any unforeseeable day between April and June and on some unpredictable mile on ninety miles of uninhabited shore," Carr wrote.
Herrera was a pilot who became friends with a photographer from Mexico City who, hearing Herrera talk about the sea turtle arribada, decided he wanted to get it on film. With Herrera at the controls of his light plane, they began skimming the beach in the spring of 1947. The first week revealed nothing. Likewise for the second. After three weeks all they had seen was sand and sea. During the twenty-fourth day the cameraman became sick, and that night he decided the limit of his tolerance had been met. He would search no more. Before he left, though, he lent Herrera his camera. During the twenty-fifth flight, above Rancho Nuevo, Herrera saw the ridleys lumbering out of the gulf and, in a sand-flying frenzy, dropping their eggs onto the beach.

At the time, of course, Carr had no knowledge of the arribada, nor would he until 1961, although not for lack of effort. He had interviewed fishermen in the Gulf, for example, but they had told him the turtle was sterile and that it nested nowhere. That theory had some acceptance for a while, and the bastard-turtle or the mule-turtle, as some called it, was considered a sterile hybrid of the green turtle and the hawksbill. The fishermen Carr interviewed had a different name for it — they called it the ridley. Carr thus began using the name, and it stuck, although he admitted he had no idea what ridley meant.

Along the Gulf coast of Mexico, local inhabitants called the same turtle cotorra, or parrot, presumably for the beak-like shape of its head and mouth. Carr encountered three in Vera Cruz, in the form of shells, painted red, and hung on the outer wall of a cantina. He was visiting that remote area — one stop on a long trail that had taken him to the Azores, where a small ridley had been found, to Portugal, Spain, Africa, and Brazil — because he had learned of a purchase, made of a fisherman in Vera Cruz, by two American college students tramping through Mexico: a purchase of two very young ridleys.

Driving north from Costa Rica, his wife and young children along for the adventure, Carr "had stopped at every coastal town accessible from the Pan-American Highway and at each stop I had gone through a routine ransacking of the place for turtle clues. I searched the fish markets, walked the beaches looking for tracks, poked about garbage dumps after shells and bones, and quizzed all the fishermen I could stimulate to talk, to hear what they would tell."

Eventually he saw the red shells. The man who ran the cantina told Carr the turtles had been captured nearby, on their nesting beach. There was evidence only of three turtles, hardly enough to sustain the populations he and others had encountered in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Coast of Florida, but to Carr it was "a sudden sign that the old ridley mystery might one day really end." It was as close as he would get to solving the mystery until that day in the darkened room in Austin.

The discovery of the film was the work of Henry Hildebrand, who at the time was a biologist at the University of Corpus Christi. He had found Herrera in 1961, while pursuing rumors of mass turtle nestings. Herrera told him he had seen such an event and in fact had a movie of it. Hildebrand arranged for its premier at the meeting in Austin, but to be sure the turtles were Kemp’s ridleys, he gave Carr a preview. To Carr’s astonishment, the film showed ten thousand ridleys laying their eggs on the beach. Hildebrand calculated that another thirty thousand turtles took part in that day’s arribada — a total of forty thousand nesting Kemp’s ridleys.

"The world," Carr wrote, "suddenly seemed to me a place in which anything can happen."
Unfortunately for the ridleys, much more — and much worse — had happened at Rancho Nuevo.

One hint had come shortly before Carr saw Herrera’s film, when, as he wrote in his Animal Kingdom column, he heard rumors that "an Arab egg merchant had been seen on the ruinous road between Rancho Nuevo and Tampico, driving a train of 14 burros loaded with turtle eggs," carting them on the first leg of a journey to sate the Mexicans’ desire for a food they considered an aphrodisiac, and which could be found, pickled in large jars, on the bar of cantinas throughout the country.

More evidence — indisputable — was documented in the film, which, as if to dull the euphoria of a mystery solved, showed frame after frame of ridleys laying eggs, only to have men catch them before they hit the ground and collect them into piles — "the most turtle eggs I ever saw in one place," Carr wrote.

Still later, he heard that after World War II, poachers made yearly raids, hauling the eggs to markets, across the sand and rugged terrain, in Army-surplus four-wheel-drive vehicles.
Hildebrand estimated that in 1961 as many as ninety percent of the nests were destroyed the same day the eggs were laid. A book called The Great Ridley Rescue quotes him as saying,

“Estimates I heard of eggs taken from the first arribada of the year varied from ‘a few used by ranchers for food’ to 20 to 24 truckloads of 80,000 eggs each, going to markets nearby.”
The poachers also worked on the water, destroying more than just nests.The Great Ridley Rescue , written by Pamela Phillips, reports that as egg-laden females would move toward shore, waiting boats grabbed thousands of animals, slicing them open to steel their eggs.
The plunder was annual. It was an egg-stealing orgy. In the words of Larry Ogren, a former student of Carr’s and now an endangered species specialist with the U.S. government, it was a "systematic harvest of every nest." And, since each female ridley lays about one hundred and five eggs a year, the one arribada caught on film may alone have supplied four million eggs for a market that must have been all but insatiable.

By the time Carr saw Herrera’s film, the arribada of forty thousand ridleys already was history. The early 1960s saw only five thousand turtles coming ashore in any one year. And the steady year-by-year drop did nothing but grow more precipitous. By the middle of the 1980s, only about five hundred ridleys lumbered out of the sea at Rancho Nuevo.

Throughout Carr’s long search, he had heard rumors and seen documentation that ridleys nested elsewhere, at least occasionally, or once upon a time. A particularly tenacious rumor continually pointed to southern Vera Cruz. A friend investigated for Carr and heard of great aggregations of cotorras , but their arribadas were in the past. If they nested at all now, it was one by one. In 1948 and 1950, a county engineer in Corpus Christi, Texas, came upon two ridleys nesting on Padre Island, a long barrier beach on Texas’s Gulf coast. They became the subjects of the first published accounts ever of nesting ridleys. And of course there were the three from the cantina in Vera Cruz. Nor are such incidents unheard of even today: astonishingly enough, a ridley nested on a Florida beach in 1989.

Yet in their insubstantiality and singularity, these isolated nestings proved mainly that if there was hope of keeping the ridley from extinction, work would have to start at Rancho Nuevo.
And so it did. Mexico began watching over the arribada in 1966; eleven years later it accepted the United States government’s offer of help. Since then, an army — including Mexican Marines — equipped with walkie-talkies, three-wheeled vehicles, and an airplane, has protected "every turtle and every nest on that beach," said Jack Woody, the national sea turtle coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Mexican and American workers watch every turtle lay her eggs and, before any predator or plunderer can get to them, remove the eggs to man-made nests in protected corrals.

"On most days during the four-month nesting season only a few turtles, or none at all, are seen nesting - sometimes there will be no turtles on the beach for a period of ten or eleven days,” Phillips reports. “Other times are busy with around 20 to 50 arriving on the same day, and on two or three random days each season a small arribada of 80 to 150 turtles will come ashore to lay their eggs. When this happens, the beach workers are hard-pressed because nobody can rest that night until all of the eggs have been moved into corrals.”

The guards watch over the nests until they hatch and the hatchlings reach the sea — fifty thousand half-inch long, 1.6-ounce ridleys each year since 1977.

"If we weren’t there,” Jack Woody told me, “that would be the end of it."

Yet, despite the money and the effort and the good intentions, the survival of fifty thousand baby ridleys each year may only prolong the inevitable. I have yet to talk with any expert who looks forward to the future of the Kemp’s ridley — who truly believes the turtle has any future to look forward to.

More than two decades ago, in So Excellent a Fishe, Carr observed: "There can be no doubt that the Atlantic ridley is in a critical position. It has always been obviously vulnerable." Nowadays, biologists often refer to the Kemp’s ridley as the world’s most endangered sea turtle. And although the Fish and Wildlife Service demurs initially — "When you try to compare species it’s almost impossible to judge which is more endangered," says David Klinger, a press officer for the service — it also considers "sea turtles to be one of the most highly endangered group of species in the world."

Woody told me, "Even with the protection we’ve given them, every year the population is down. It could be biologically extinct and we don’t know it." Nor might we realize it for many years. Turtles are well-known for living long lives; green turtles, for example, probably do not even begin to reproduce until they are thirty or forty years old, according to Carr. If ridleys are favored with a similar Methuselah-like quality, they can be expected to fade from the planet only with excrutiating slowness. But, the consensus seems to indicate, fade they will.

So why do embers of optimism burn? Perhaps it’s our own species’ capacity for hope. Perhaps it’s what biologists tell themselves when they are working hard on a problem that is likely to be unsolvable. And perhaps, because nobody interested in sea turtles wants the ridleys to die out, every hopeful indication, no matter how tiny, is scrutinized to find some way to say responsibly: this is the sign we’ve been looking for. Jack Woody himself suggested I ask Larry Ogren about recent events in his territory.

Ogren works for the National Marine Fisheries Service, out of an office in Panama City, in the Florida panhandle. His domain includes the coast of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas. In the 1960s he made a point of looking for Kemp’s ridleys and asking fishermen about them. "We had none at all," he told me. But in recent years that has changed. He believes he is seeing what he calls "a demographic shift in the population."

Since 1985, "I’ve started looking for them in coastal marshes and I’m getting more and more of them," Ogren said. "They can be quite common. We’re seeing an abundance in some areas — no kidding."

It is to the ridleys’ great misfortune, however, that they are also abundant in places less conducive to a long and healthy existence — namely, in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic waters that are crisscrossed by fleets of shrimp boats. The word "controversial" does not nearly convey the fury of the disagreement between those who catch shrimp for a living and those who are trying to save the Kemp’s ridley. To some observers, in fact, the shrimp boats, and not the plunder at Rancho Nuevo, are to blame for the decimation of the ridleys’ breeding population. Archie Carr, for example, believed that because turtles were so long-lived, the decline happened too soon and too fast to blame on the egg stealing.

"It seems more probable," he wrote in Animal Kingdom, "that the reduction in nesting turtles reflects mainly the growth of the shrimp industry, which extracted ridleys of all ages from the population."

The relationship between sea turtles and shrimp is a scary example of how an economy that can easily transport food thousands of miles from its source can, with no second thoughts, cause profound ecological problems. There is, essentially, no reason why shrimp should be, if not a staple, then a regular luxury for people who live nowhere near the smell of salt water and the power of the tides. Yet, as Jack and Anne Rudloe noted in an article about sea turtles and shrimpers in the December, 1989, issue of Smithsonian magazine, "run-down luncheonettes a thousand miles from the sea can be counted on to serve deep-fried butterfly shrimp."

Americans eat almost two and a half pounds of shrimp per person each year, the Rudloes reported. A demand of that size spawns a big industry: In the United States alone, seven thousand boats annually trawl between four million and five million hours in offshore waters alone, while another eleven thousand trawl inshore. In 1988, the Rudloes reported, U. S. trawlers landed three hundred and thirty-one million pounds of shrimp, worth $506 million. Imports accounted for another four hundred and seventy-one million pounds.

It would be hard to begrudge the industry its bounty if it were one that inspired praise for the conservation of resources. But that is far from the case. The Rudloes report that for each pound of shrimp the trawlers catch, nine pounds of other marine animals die incidentally. Ted Williams, writing in Audubon magazine, says the ratio sometimes reaches twenty to one.
A big part of that ratio can be made up each time a trawler hauls in a sea turtle. And government statistics indicate that a net full of loggerhead or ridley is not a rare occurence. In his book Time of the Turtle, Jack Rudloe — using observations made by Larry Ogren — describes how a sea turtle gets caught by a shrimp boat. The turtle was a loggerhead, not a ridley, but Ogren told me the point is the same. Rudloe wrote:
"First, the two iron-shoed otter doors approached, and the frightened turtle turned and began swimming straight ahead, trying to outrun them. They can exceed speeds of twenty miles an hour, while the net creeps along at four. But instead of veering off to the side with a single stroke of its powerful flipper, the big dull-witted creature kept swimming straight ahead.

"The net came on relentlessly, and the turtle began to tire. With each spurt forward it made less distance and used more energy than on the previous spurt. Soon the doors were ahead of it. It began to drop back, making a few more desperate spurts before it entered the mouth of the net, became pinned to the webbing, and was forced into the funnel along with the rest of the catch, hopelessly carried along."

According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, the seven thousand shrimp trawlers that work offshore catch, on the average, about seven sea turtles each a year. Fewer than two of those die as a result. It hardly seems to be a problem, until you do the multiplication: forty-eight thousand sea turtles caught, eleven thousand two hundred dead. Of those, almost ten thousand are loggerheads, a threatened species. About seven hundred sixty-seven are Kemp’s ridleys. In other words, each year at least two hundred more ridleys die in shrimp nets than nest at Rancho Nuevo.

The shrimp industry’s response to these statistics and accusations is angry. There is no way shrimpers account for so many turtle deaths, they say. And even if it were true, so what? Are turtles more important than the economic health of the shrimp industry? The shrimpers’ protests have grown more bitter as environmental groups have succesfully sued the federal government to force it to obey the endangered species act —obedience in this case meaning the use of mechanisms called TEDs, turtle excluder devices.

TEDs come in several designs, each basically an outlet in the net. When working properly, a TED allows turtles and other large animals or objects to slip back into the sea before reaching the net’s pocket. Shrimp stay caught. TEDs would seem to be a good solution to turtle mortality, except that shrimpers say the device is nothing more than a hole in the net that cuts their shrimp catch by twenty percent. The shrimpers have pressured politicians, enlisted the support of United States Commerce Secretary Robert Mosbacher, and organized mass acts of civil disobediance to protest the use of TEDs. But so far, at least, their protests, while upsetting the timely adoption of TEDs by the industry, appear to have fallen to the power of the Endangered Species Act. It is not a moment too soon, although it may ultimately all prove to be too late.

But before the end arrives — if it arrives — scientists far north of the Gulf of Mexico intend to make the most of what has been an unprecedented chance to study the Kemp’s ridley. Until 1985, when the first ridleys were stranded on the beaches of Long Island Sound, all research on the ridleys had essentially been limited to Rancho Nuevo and Padre Island. The state of wildlife biologists’ knowledge about the Kemp’s ridley in 1985 resembled Carr’s assessment of the knowledge of sea turtles in general in 1980 — elementary. So although the Okeanos Ocean Research Foundation was making truly new discoveries, some of the discoveries seemed notable for their obviousness.

Carr, for example, told me he believed that Kemp’s ridleys of the size being found in the Sound were creatures of the plankton — they could move their flippers to swim but could not navigate and so were forced to rely on tides and currents to transport them. Okeanos quickly saw this was not so. One turtle, found cold-stunned but alive in 1985, and nursed back to health during a winter in captivity, was released into a salt marsh at Mount Sinai Harbor. Sam Sadove and Ed Standora, a professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo, watched from an inflatable, outboard-powered boat and followed it as it swam toward the Sound. At four meters per second, the tide was coming in hard. The boat floundered. "We attempted to capture the animal,” Sadove reported, “but found it was impossible to swim in the inlet against the incoming tide. The turtle, however, had no difficulty negotiating the ... current." The young ridleys were not as helpless as Archie Carr had thought.

Nor was much known about how fast ridleys grew. So whenever Sadove got a cold-stunned turtle that was still alive, he weighed and measured it. One particular turtle had a carapace length of just over ten inches and weighed six and a half pounds when it was first recovered in 1985. In early August of ’86, when Sadove released it and began tracking it, it was about a foot long and weighed almost nine pounds. Four months later, when it was found dead on a beach, it had grown to almost fourteen inches and its weight had ballooned to more than fourteen pounds.

"That is extremely significant," Sadove told me in early 1987, "because there’s no data on wild-growth rates."

For Sadove in those early days, that was about as strong a statement as he would make about the ridleys. Even the most obvious observations were related with a wariness of definite pronouncements. After releasing two turtles into a marsh near Stony Brook, for example, he sat up all night in his boat listening to the beep beep beep of the transmitters he had attached to their shells and noting their movements. The turtles surfaced regularly for air but otherwise remained still. The nighttime movements of a turtle he released into Mount Sinai Harbor were the same. Sadove, in fact, stayed with one turtle for a week: its nights were invariably regular — no movement, except to surface for air. "This behavior," Sadove wrote, tiptoeing carefully, "suggested that these turtles may rest at night."

The cold-stunning episode of 1985 was followed by similar incidents in 1986 and 1987, and researchers — well aware of the abyss the species was perched upon and the potential effect such mass mortality could have — were beginning to fear a pattern. They knew there was a virtual absence in the scientific record of cold-stunning episodes in the past. From Okeanos’s beginning in 1979, for example, through 1984, Sadove had come upon only one dead ridley. And that turtle had ingested such a massive dose of cadmium that the circumstances of its death could not definitely be tied to cold-stunning. Looking back, the scientists at Okeanos hoped that the absence indicated not that few people were seeking and finding dead sea turtles on beaches but rather that dead sea turtles on beaches were rare finds.

Then, as if to justify the circumspection of scientists afraid of going out on a limb, 1988 arrived. The volunteer army of beachcombers tripled to one hundred and thirty. And the number of stranded sea turtles plummeted.

The first, most obvious theory was that sea turtles had abandoned the region: their appearance since 1985 was an anomaly, the explanation went, and the conditions that had caused them to inhabit the area in the first place — whatever those conditions may have been — had vanished. But a quick review of records disproved that. The drop had nothing to do with the number of turtles in the area. Steve Morreale, who in the late 1980s was hired as Okeanos’s director of sea turtle research (allowing Sadove to return to studying whales), told me that in the summer of 1987 Okeanos tagged and released twenty-one ridleys and loggerheads; later that year, forty two were found cold-stunned. In the summer of 1988 Okeanos again tagged and released twenty-one turtles. But that year only one turtle was found cold-stunned, and that was not on the Sound at all, but on a beach at the eastern end of Long Island’s south shore.

So if the turtle population had not declined, Okeanos’s researchers need to find another explanation for the surprising — though fortunate — lack of dead ridleys.
They checked the water temperature, so crucial to cold-blooded animals. Ridleys first arrive in the Sound — or at least they are first seen in the Sound — in August, when the water temperature has risen to almost seventy degrees Fahrenheit or higher. Water temperatures of forty-five degrees or lower are lethal, so before the water drops to that level — in November — the turtles obviously have to move back out into the Gulf Stream. Okeanos found nothing to indicate that water temperature had dropped faster than normal, or further than normal, in the years before 1988. In fact, temperatures in 1988 were slightly colder than in previous years.

A more pronounced difference was found in wind direction. In 1985, the researchers discovered, prevailing winds from the west were only slightly more common than east winds — the ratio was 1.6 to 1. But in 1988, east winds were far less common: West winds prevailed by nearly 7 to 1. As the westerlies increased, the number of strandings fell. How would that have affected sea turtles? Two possible explanations stand out. For one, the turtles may have sensed that prevailing west winds indicated the coming of winter. Because east winds were almost as common as westerlies, the animals did not recognize winter’s onset, and so they stayed put. Or, perhaps more likely, the west winds may have given the turtles a boost, helping them swim east toward the Atlantic and the Gulf Stream.

That, possibly, solved the riddle of the strandings. But the scientists at Okeanos had much more to learn about the ridleys themselves. For one thing, they wanted to know what the turtles were doing and how well they were doing in Long Island Sound. The beginning of an answer to that question was found in their food.

In the late 1980s, Morreale and Vinny Burke studied seventeen turtles and learned that they ate only bottom-dwelling invertebrates, especially spider crabs and green crabs, which constituted three-quarters of their food. The two crabs are common in the Sound and the Peconic bays, and the ridleys were having little trouble homing in on them. "There’s no question, I don’t think, about that," Burke told me. "The turtles are growing at tremendous rates," adding up to fifteen percent of their body weight in a week.

Convinced that the ridleys were thriving, Morreale and Burke next speculated about why the turtles moved inshore in the first place. The answer, Burke said, may be that very small turtles are creatures of the ocean, and in particular of the Gulf Stream, where they feed on tiny planktonic animals. The plankton is sufficiently nutritious to fuel the ridleys growth only to a certain size, after which they need bigger portions. It so happens that the bigger portions - spider crabs and green crabs - live and feed along the mussel beds that pave the bottom of the relatively shallow coastal waters, including the Sound. So, the theory goes, the ridleys sense the need for different food and instinctively know where to find it.

The answer to the next question Morreale and Burke posed - what are the critical habitats or resources for these animals? - was relatively easy.

"Wherever there are spider crabs and green crabs could be a critical habitat," Burke said. "If there are spider crabs and green crabs then there’s every reason to believe that there are sea turtles there."

Morreale said Okeanos has determined almost without doubt that the Sound and the eastern bays of Long Island "are very significant" turtle habitat.

"We find as many of that size turtle as they find in the Gulf of Mexico," he said. "A better interpretation is there are two major areas for this size turtle in the world — the Gulf of Mexico and Long Island."

He and Burke also believe that the ridleys’ domain extends far west, to the crowded and polluted waters off Fairfield County, Connecticut, and New York’s Westchester and Nassau counties. Most of their live captures come from the eastern waters because that is where they conduct most of their research. But in the big cold-stunning years, many recoveries were made in the western end of the Sound. And in 1987 Morreale fastened a transmitter to a ridley and chased it for one hundred twenty five days as it navigated west to within five miles of Throgs Neck. Said Morreale, "They’re utilizing the whole Sound, up and down."

But Okeanos’s work, as exciting and as significant as it is, still has not answered two critical questions about the Kemp’s ridley.

Why all of a sudden were so many ridleys encountered in Long Island Sound? For despite the historical records of ridleys being the most common sea turtles in New York waters, occurences of ridleys in the Sound in the years just prior to 1985 were notable for their rarity. Perhaps, as Larry Ogren, of the National Marine Fisheries Service, had speculated about the ridleys he began seeing along the Gulf Coast in 1985, the Sound’s turtles are those that were able to hatch successfully because of the protection at Rancho Nuevo. Given their small size and young age, it is almost certain that they are.

A bigger question, one asked by Sam Sadove in 1987 and still not answered by Morreale and Burke in 1990, is whether the ridleys will return to the breeding population. Archie Carr believed that some of the ridleys that reach the Atlantic — if not specifically the Sound — return to Rancho Nuevo, although his colleague Henry Hildebrand believes that the breeding turtles spend their lives within the Gulf of Mexico. Sadove told me he thinks it’s likely the Sound’s ridleys do return to reproduce because, given the small number of nesting females, it would be disastrous for a species to give up so many potential breeders. But that is the educated guess of a wildlife biologist, nothing more.

The fact is, no one has ever seen a ridley leave the Sound. The most that can be said, according to Burke, is that when turtles are caught or followed in October, they are moving east, toward The Race. And until it can be determined, either by observation or the return of a flipper tag, that they leave New York’s waters alive, opinions about whether they return to Rancho Nuevo to nest are only speculation. "We’re still waiting for that magic movement record," Ogren said.

The record may still be years away, because the Sound’s ridleys may still be years away from sexual maturity. If so, the researchers at Okeanos hope the flipper tags remain fastened until the ridleys struggle out of the Mexican surf onto the beach at Rancho Nuevo. The first time that happens would be the proof that Long Island Sound is not merely some pleasant way-station en route to the ridleys’ certain doom.

Most of the sources for this are mentioned in the text; some material came from a paper written by Burke and Morreale, which I can’t find at the moment. When I do, I’ll cite it.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

Bobsled Driver, 1980

I'd never actually seen anyone eat an entire bowl of salsa before. I don't mean chip by chip – I mean the whole bowl, sucking it down in one big slurp. Not that it was a huge bowl. But the size wasn't important. It was the eating of it that was important.

I was sitting at the bar of the Benchmark, on Saranac Avenue. I preferred Jimmy's, on Main Street, but it was Tuesday night and Jimmy's was closed on Tuesdays. I had played basketball in a pickup game at Lake Placid High School earlier in the evening, showered, and then driven to the Benchmark for something to eat and to watch baseball on television. It was early in April, the Yankees were in Texas, and my recollection is that this was the first game of the season, although on that point I'm not sure.

After a while two guys walked in and sat near me. One guy was large and boisterous, with a nest of unruly dark hair and a Z.Z. Top beard but no mustache. The other was smaller and clean-shaven. It took a while before I recognized him from the zig-zag bend in his nose – as if it had been broken sideways rather than flattened.

“Schlitz,” he said to the bartender.

“No Schlitz.”

“Vodka tonic,” he said.

He drank the vodka tonic, then another, and it was then that he picked up the bowl of salsa, stood as if needing to get in better position, lifted the bowl to his mouth and slurped the salsa down. I don't remember if it was medium or hot. When the bowl was empty, he sat down and watched the ballgame.

He had a reputation as being a wild man and an ornery cuss. He had had a chestnut beard and long hair that made him look as if he had just staggered out of the deep woods. His nickname was Stunt, and I assumed that was because he wasn't exactly risk-averse in his avocation, which was driving a bobsled. He was the best in North America and one of the best in the world. The local reporters whom I hung around with before and during the Olympics told me he never talked to the press. On a couple of occasions during the trials before the Games I saw him at the track, in or near the shed before a run or waiting in the cold for the truck that would drive his sled back to the top. I could have spoken to him then, but the warnings of the reporters had intimidated me. I was reluctant to ask a dumb question. How do you feel? You think you have a good chance? Will this finally be the year when the U.S. wins a medal again? That would have given him an excuse to be ornery, and nothing had happened during his trial runs to prompt a better question.

In the Olympics he finished sixth in the two-man. At a press conference afterwards he gave simple short answers to reporters' questions, with no hostility but with no particular expansiveness either. I asked him what had happened during his third heat to cause him to drop from fifth place, with an outside shot at a medal, to sixth. He said he had made a mistake on one of the curves high on the track, came in with a slow time, and simply did not think he had a realistic hope of making it up in the final heat. His voice was low and mumbly. As he finished, he looked at me for a second or two.

In the bar, I recognized the bent nose first and then the low, mumbly voice.

As quiet as he was, his friend was noisy, talking with the bartender and with the two or three other people who sat at the bar, drinking beer after beer. He called him “Stuntboy” and “Lamont” and “Mr. Olympic,” as if he were a kid cousin whom he felt at liberty to mock good-naturedly but whom he was ultimately responsible for.

He pretty much ignored this loud friend. He seemed to realize that in the small world of Lake Placid-Saranac Lake, people recognized him, and he carried on purposely, not to make himself larger than life but almost as if he wanted to be smaller than life. He seemed torn between wanting attention and not wanting it, so that when he received it he acted coarsely, to repel those who watched him. He and I watched the game and talked baseball. He knew the players on both teams. He said Lou Piniella was overrated because all he could do was hit. Late in the game he thought Reggie Jackson, whom he referred to as “Weggie,” should sacrifice bunt. He told me he hated the Yankees. He bought me a beer. He said he had eaten psilocybin mushrooms earlier in the evening. He was very drunk. In the middle of an exchange about the merits of one of the ballplayers, he turned toward me and said, “Didn't you ask me a question at a press conference?”

“I did. I wanted to see if I could get you to talk to the press.”

“I don't even remember what it was I said.”

The game ended in the bottom of the eleventh inning when Goose Gossage threw a wild pitch to Richie Zisk with the bases loaded.

We drank more beer. He sat with his elbows on the bar and told me he'd be there again in 1984. He said that even if some good young drivers come up, they wouldn't be able to beat him. He told me he was 28, had been driving for eight years, and was getting better.

“Before I quit I'll be in the top three. I'm in the top ten now, and that's pretty good.”
“Not that good,” I said.

“Better than being in the top twenty.”

Then he said that in the Olympics he had made a mistake near the start of the third heat and wasn't able to make up the time either in the lower half of the run or in the next heat. So he settled for sixth.

“This is what I tried to explain at the press conference,” he said.

He drank another beer.

I asked him if he thought he’d be able to beat the world champion, a great driver from Switzerland.

“He cheats,” he said.

I looked at him. I had heard a story about how bobsledders applied a substance to their sleds' runners to go faster, something that disappeared by the time the sleds reached the bottom, so the race officials couldn't detect it, if they even cared. An A.P. reporter had told me.

“I cheat too,” he said.

“How do you cheat?” I asked.

He sat quietly for a few seconds.

He said, “It's a secret among the drivers.”

He looked straight ahead. Outside it had begun to snow lightly. I pulled my hooded sweatshirt over my head, put on my jacket and got up to leave. He called the bartender over and ordered another beer.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Modern Houses in New Canaan & Pound Ridge

Scattered throughout New Canaan, Conn., and Pound Ridge, N.Y., are dozens of prime examples of an innovative architectural movement from the mid-twentieth century that today seems on the brink of a revival even as builders continue to impose ostentatious mega-houses on the landscape.

These remnants of the Modern movement were simply and efficiently designed, and built to fit in among the hills, ridges and rock outcrops that characterize the area. They were also a rejection of middle-class and upper-middle-class styles and tastes, even though most of their owners were upper middle class.

Today some are still owned by their original owners, but many have been snapped up by a younger generation of people who are restoring them and who appreciate their differences in style from the typical suburban "colonial." In an era when people are starting to question the appropriateness – economically and aesthetically – of the 9,000-square-foot McMansion, Modern houses seem like a workable return to a more efficient past.

Among those who agree is John Vorisek, who inherited a Modern house on Eastwoods Road in Pound Ridge, and who has lived there with his wife, Colleen, for 3-1/2 years.
Built for Vorisek’s father and mother by two architects said to be disciples of Frank Lloyd Wright, the house is constructed of stone, tongue-in-groove cedar, and glass, with the flat roof that typifies Modern houses, on a bluff several hundred feet back from the road in the woods.

“We pretty much came to the conclusion that it would be nuts to start from scratch, to tear the place down,” Vorisek said.

The reason was that although it needed renovation, the house was sound and well-constructed, its 3,000 square feet met their needs for sufficient though not extravagant space, and it appealed to their design sense.

Today, as many as 80 Modern houses, built from the late 1930s through the 1950s, remain in New Canaan and Pound Ridge.

Many, like the Vorisek house, are hidden in the woods. But motorists who find their way to Chichester Road and Laurel Road in New Canaan can see about a dozen houses employing the variety of styles and textures that Modern domestic architecture comprises.

In Pound Ridge, the Eastwoods Road-Trinity Pass area contains a more modest assemblage of five Modern houses, including one of the earliest built in Westchester County, but most are hidden from the road.

Pound Ridge, with its sparse development and 4,700 people, clearly stands in New Canaan’s shadow as a center of Modern architecture. New Canaan still has about 70 Modern houses, 30 of which experts consider to be “significant” examples of the style.

And New Canaan was the home of some of the giants of Modernism – the so-called Harvard Five: Marcel Breuer, Philip Johnson (who still lives in his world-renowned Glass House on Ponus Ridge Road in New Canaan), Elliot Noyes, Landis Gores, and John Johansen.

“What happened here in New Canaan 40 and 50 years ago is remarkable,” said Laura Pla, who recently organized a Modern House Symposium for the New Canaan Historical Society. “There was such a collection of architecture and architects!”

Richard Bergmann, a New Canaan architect who worked with Noyes, said the principles of Modern architecture include “an honesty of materials; developing spaces that meet the client’s needs and aren’t just done because that’s the way you do it; and a sensitivity to the site.”
He also said Modern architects generally followed three criteria that should – but often don’t – apply to all architecture:
-- an understanding of the external influences on a site, such as zoning, climate, views, the approach to the site, the angles of the sun, the landscape;
-- the internal influences, such as the client’s needs and budget;
-- and the design, which grows out of the first two criteria.

“Each house should be totally different because the program’s different and the budget is different,” Bergmann said.

Building designers have used those principles in numerous historic periods, he said, including ancient Greece, Roman, early Gothic, Shaker, and early colonial American – “when they were built for shelter and not for trying to impress your neighbors,” he said.

Modernism was born in Europe in the early years of the twentieth century, and encompassed artists working in many fields – Hemingway and James Joyce, Picasso, Stravinsky, and Nijinski, among many others.

In architecture and design, Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe were the leading theorists and practitioners. Among those who followed was Marcel Breuer, a student of the Bauhaus School in Germany.

Breuer came to America during the Nazi era and taught at Harvard, where his students included Elliot Noyes, Landis Gores, Philip Johnson and John Johansen – the Harvard Five.
Noyes was the first to move to New Canaan; the others followed.

“When they were originally built,” Bergmann said of the first Modern houses in New Canaan, “there was a lot of controversy. A lot of the old stodgy New England types couldn’t stand these houses. They thought they should all be Colonial.”

When Johnson lectured on Modern architecture in New Canaan, a curmudgeon wrote a letter to the town paper asking him and his compatriots to get out of town with their “packing box” houses.

Instead, the Harvard Five drew a younger generation of people who were settling down after World War II. Many of them worked in the creative arts, and while they no longer wanted to live in New York City they also wanted to break from the prevalent styles and tastes that white clapboard Colonials and farmhouses represented.

Among them were Helen and Gene Federico, a graphic designer-illustrator and advertising art director, respectively, who in 1949 saw in a newspaper ad that a house designed by Breuer in New Canaan was for rent.

The Federicos shared the house – on Sunset Hill Road – with Helen’s sister and brother-in-law, Muriel and Joseph Hinerfeld. While the Federicos combed the Pound Ridge area for land to buy on which to build a house, the Hinerfeld’s bought a Modern house built in 1939 by the Moore & Hutchins architectural firm (they also designed the New Canaan Library) for a Bertram F. Willcox.

The house, which is on Bender Way in Pound Ridge, was one of the first Modern houses in Westchester County. (My wife and I acquired it from the Hinerfeld estate in 1999).

The Federicos, meanwhile, found a five-acre site about a half-mile away on Eastwoods Road and began to work with architect Leroy Binkley, a student of Mies van der Rohe’s, on a design for a house.

“We were always interested in building in a contemporary way,” said Helen Federico, who still lives in the house. “That was very important. And not making a statement on the landscape, which certainly a lot of people did even then.”

The Federicos chose a nearly-flat rock outcrop on which to build. The house, which was finished in 1951, was constructed of gray cypress and glass, and has a fieldstone fireplace and black slate floors with radiant heating.

Easy maintenance was one of their important goals, and one of the characteristics often cited by Modern house owners. In the Federico house there’s hardly a painted surface to be found.

“We couldn’t face having it painted, having had enough experience with painters in apartments in New York,” Helen said.

The Federicos were followed to Pound Ridge by another art director, Bob Gage, and his wife Fay, who built a Modern house on Old Stone Hill Road, and then by Ann and John Strauss, who commissioned Edward Larabee Barnes to build a Modern house for them near the Federicos on Eastwoods Road.

In New Canaan, the Harvard five and their followers ultimately built more than 80 houses, some of them first-rate and built to last, others built rather cheaply for clients with meager budgets, Bergmann said.

But whether they were built to last or not, many of the Modern houses have been torn down in recent years, replaced by the oversized stately homes that contemporary builders are imposing on the landscape. (Modern houses aren’t the only victims; disproportionately large McMansions have replaced farmhouses in many places along New Canaan’s Oenoke Ridge Road, West Road, Ponus Ridge Road, and White Oak Shade Road.)

Among the first-rate examples of Modernism to be demolished was the Stackpole house, on Ponus Ridge Road, designed by Elliot Noyes in 1951 and taken down in 1999.

Laura Pla happened to be driving along at the time, saw the demolition, and was appalled. Bergmann saw others being demolished elsewhere in town and was likewise concerned.
No regulations exist in New Canaan to prevent the demolitions, and so independently of each other, Pla and Bergman tried to stir up public opinion.

Bergmann helped organize a symposium on the issue about five years ago, and Pla and the historical society put together a symposium and tour in October 2001 that drew 150 people.

“My goal primarily was preservation,” Pla said.

Pla said she thinks there is still ample reason to enact local regulations that make it difficult to tear down architecturally-significant Modern houses. But by celebrating their qualities, Pla and others may be helping to introduce them potential buyers who will preserve and restore them.

John and Vorisek are only one example of people who have done so. In Pound Ridge, Sue Haft and Eric Moss bought and renovated a Moore & Hutchins house on Bender Way that one of the firm’s partners, John C.B. Moore, built as a weekend retreat for himself.

Next to it is the Moore & Hutchins house that the Hinerfelds owned. It looks substantially the same today, after a renovation that included new heating, electrical, and plumbing, as well as construction of a small addition (there is a photo of it on Sphere, taken a couple of weeks ago).

Sixty years after the first ones were built, the Modern houses of New Canaan and Pound Ridge have become as much a part of the historical heritage as the remaining farmhouses and old stone walls. That awareness is just starting to take hold, but it may be enough to preserve what is left.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

The Swiss Cheese Maker

The occasion for this post was a piece in the Times Magazine about a Modern house built in an ancient village in eastern Switzerland. We live in a Modern house, we like Modern domestic architecture, and we like Switzerland, and this house happened to be in a village -- Soglio -- we had visited twice. By now the Times' website has archived the story, and the archives don't include pictures, so there's no sense linking to it. But Soglio is worth knowing.

It is a tiny village perched on a terrace above the Val Bregaglia that we visited twice, in 1987 and in 1989. To get there, you follow the valley of the Upper Engadine, the famous winter sport region, past St. Moritz, Sils Maria and Sils Biselgia – an area now scarred by highways that have muddied the air and robbed the valley of much of its beauty – and through Maloja.

In ’87 we were traveling on the cheap (if that’s possible in Switzerland) and so did not rent a car. We’d take the train or the post bus to a village, find a place to stay, and head out for long hikes in the mountains.

One of those places was Maloja, where in early June it was still late winter. The larches and beeches had yet to put out leaves, and as the snow melted, entire meadows glistened with moving water. We hiked along the Via Engiadina through tiny villages that served as summer residences for cowherds – Blaunca, for example, a cluster of 20 or so stone structures with shale roofs, 6,700 feet above sea level. A carving on one of the houses said it had been built in 1436 and renovated in 1963. Near there we encountered a flock of 10 steinbock – mountain goats – and watched them feed contentedly.

The next morning, we boarded a bus at Maloja and descended through the Maloja Pass, an incredible series of hairpin curves that dropped us from the late winter of the Engadine into the full spring of the Val Bregaglia, from 5,900 feet to 2,700. The larches sprouted leaves, the conifers changed to birch and beech and chestnut, the gardens became planted, the fields full of yellow and white and blue and violet. At Promontogno we hopped a connecting bus and rode another thousand feet up the hillside to Soglio.

There we found a hotel, had lunch in the garden of an old hotel called the Palazzo surrounded by trees, hedges, and flowers. Two giant sequoias rose from the rear of the garden and nearby a sign asked for money to keep them alive. After lunch we walked through the outlying meadows, a riot of beautifully-colored wildflowers — buttercups, cow parsnip, harebells, bluebells, three kinds of mints, daisies, bladder campions, trefoil, red clover, white clover. Then we strolled through the churchyard and stopped in across the road at a dairy, or lattaria, where we met a fellow who made goat cheese. Here's what we saw and learned, from the unpublished Andersen Diaries.

June 7, 1987

Yesterday during a visit to the lattaria, Gina struck up a conversation with the proprietor, who invited us to come by this morning and watch him make cheese. So we ate our breakfast early, and shortly after 7 walked through the rain to his shop next door.

It is a stone building with a workroom of roughly 20 feet by 20 feet, and a thick wooden door and a stone floor, and lit by fluorescent lights. There are two large copper-and-cast-iron cauldrons, a scale hanging in one corner, a trough into which water trickles constantly in another corner, stainless steel pots, a small stove, a wooden table with loaves of bread and a coffee machine, and a refrigerator.

The proprietor is a man of about 40, with curly dark hair turning gray. He wore rimless eyeglasses, and a blue-and-gold plaid shirt and grey corduroy pants. He told us he had had a minor disaster that morning — some milk spilled, I think — and was going to advise us not to bother coming over. But he had gotten it under control and figured he could still make his cheese and talk to us at the same time.

"Now I will make my coffee, which I need badly," he said.

The label on the cheese says "Ziegenmilch Produkte" and the proprietors are listed as "R+H Gutekunst." I asked. "Which are you, R or H?"

"Horst," he said, "which is the eagle's nest."

There is not much goat-cheese making in Switzerland. Five to seven customers from the village walk over between 7 a.m. and 7:30 to deliver their milk. One of those, a young man with a cigarette in his mouth, came in carrying two buckets of milk, a red plastic one and a stainless steel one. He wore a maroon jacket, green coveralls. He poured the milk into a larger bucket that was hung on a scale.

Shortly after an older woman in a gray-green coat and a kerchief on her head did the same. Horst joked with her and she smiled broadly as she said "arrivaderci." Later a young woman wearing a blue jacket and brown corduroys, with a handkerchief covering her head, came in with her morning's supply. As she entered I whiffed the sweet smell of goats.

The goats go as high as 2,000 meters up the mountain in search of grass. One goat produces up to three liters of milk a day and there are 120 goats in the town — from 30 of which Horst buys milk.

He spoke English well although slowly, articulating words carefully but occasionally falling into a curious usage. The temperature of the milk while it is cooked, he said, was "the warranty" that the cheese would turn out right. And, "How to make yogurt is very simple if once you have milk," he said.

He said he lives 7 kilometers down the road and comes up to the shop twice a day. He alternates, one day making yogurt, the next day cheese.

When his coffee was ready he fixed himself some bread and butter with orange marmalade.

I asked him what the building was used for before he began his lattaria, which he said was six years ago.

"Fifty years ago the whole thing was active, with big pots — in the winter time only," because the animals remained in the barns. In other seasons people drank their milk or made cheese themselves on the hillsides. Also before he started, "They always had a problem in hay time," because when each day's field work was done, there was no time to make cheese with the milk.

Because he buys so much milk, and because there is only so much cheese and yogurt one can sell in a village the size of Soglio, "I have invented a few things," he told us, including a sort of liquid health food he calls Milkofit.

Outside the rain fell steadily, as it had since the previous night, the water sliding downhill over the cobblestones, past the church across the road.

Gina noticed and admired a hologram on the wall. He said it was his work. "I was doing some kind of an art, you know — I wanted to do it, I must say."

He said he is from Basel, "The capital of chemistry."

"Before I started this kind of work I was in scientific field — I have knowledge of several fields," he said, including electronics, physics, biology, and chemistry.

He gave Gina a detailed account of how to make cheese and yogurt and perhaps also could not resist giving us his world view, which is optimistic, particularly regarding the relations between the superpowers. With Gorbachev in power things are looking up, he said, and he gave as a recent example of a good move the decision to stop jamming transmissions by the Voice of America.

"The world is going to be a little bit better," he told us.

"The simplicity of the matter is, people are always hungry, you know."

Americans come in and sniff around suspiciously, he said, not sure of what to make of such an operation.

"They laugh. It's blowing them out because it's too much nature. They'd rather eat something plastic, instead of eat something original that has quality."

A small woman came in whom he greeted with great pleasure. He introduced her to us as Mrs. Giovanoli, a name we had seen often in the churchyard across the street. He said she is originally from Soglio, was back for a visit. It is she, he said, who taught him how to make cheese.

[Two years later we visited Horst again. He told us he no longer made many goats' products because a political fight in the town caused many of the goatkeeprs to give up the goat business.]

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

The Last Fisherman

I met Dan Dzenkowski well before dawn on a Saturday morning in July 1989, at his dock, which was next to a fish market on an inlet called Stirling Creek, in Greenport. Dan was the last pound net fisherman on Long Island Sound. We shook hands and boarded his boat. He was 64, friendly and open and perfectly willing to accommodate me and my questions. His brother Joe was another story. I shook Joe’s hand and he scowled, and kept scowling for the entire trip.

The other mate hadn’t shown up yet and after a wait of a few minutes, Dan telephoned him, woke him up, and reminded him that they were working that morning. He turned out to be a much younger man, named Jim, who went about his business without any nonsense but without any hostility either.

As we waited, a trawler eased alongside the fish market for its supply of ice, which the one-man crew shoveled into three tubs the size of bushel baskets. Dan told me than Greenport used to be far busier. Each day an ice house would deliver a ton or more of ice to keep the catch fresh. Fishing boats would line up for ice in the morning and return later, their holds filled with weakfish and striped bass and squid. These days, Dan said, three or four boats at most needed ice.

Dan maneuvered his boat down the creek — which he pronounced crick — and through Greenport Harbor, turning south past Long Beach Point, and then east along Peconic Bay toward Orient, an hour away. Joe stayed on deck for the duration. Jim dozed in the cabin. I talked with Dan as he stood at the wheel.

He told me – no surprise here – that the fishing was not as good as it used to be. Fishermen have retired or found other work and few young men want to sacrifice the security and relative ease — weekends and holidays off, steady hours — of a conventional job. And there aren’t as many fish as there used to be.

As a young man Dan grew potatoes and cauliflower on a North Fork truck farm, catching lobsters evenings and in winter. Fishing accounted for a substantial part of his income for about half of his 64 years. By then, however, most of the small farms were gone, and their maritime equivalent — the fishing boat with a crew of two or three men — was disappearing too. Stirling Creek had been taken over by cabin cruisers and condominiums.

At the lighthouse beyond Orient Point we made a hairpin turn and plowed through Plum Gut into Long Island Sound. The sky was growing lighter although the sun hadn’t risen yet. Only one of Dan’s six nets were in the Sound – the others were in Gardiner’s Bay, but we were heading to the Sound first because the net is staked close to Plum Gut, which funnels water between Gardiner’s Bay and the Sound at six knots, and the only safe time to work it is at slack water, which was approaching.

A pound net is set up perpendicular to the shore. The fishermen stick eight or ten large posts into the water leading out from the beach, and then string a net along the posts. The net intercepts the fish as they’re swimming along the shore and forces them to swim out from shore. The pound, which is also made of netting, is attached to poles at the far end. The fish are led into the pound which is constructed so that once they get in, they can’t find their way out.

Dan’s judgment that morning was solid — the water was calm and he easily edged the boat against the pound net’s outer side. Without exchanging a word, the crew moved into action.

On the bow, Jim looped a rope to one of the net’s outer stakes. The boat rocked briefly, then stabilized. Then Jim and Dan each dropped into one of the dinghies we had been towing. Each found his balance standing on the bow and maneuvered along the net to the far end of the pound. Now Pulling themselves back toward the boat, they began to raise the net by unhooking it and re-hooking it at a higher spot, flapping it to loosen the hundreds of spider crabs that clung to it, making the pound smaller and smaller as they progressed. When Jim arrived at the boat, Joe hopped down onto his dinghy alongside him, and together they returned to the far end of the pound, where Jim crossed onto Dan’s dinghy. Joe returned to the boat and tied the dinghy to the stern.

Now standing in the same dinghy, Dan and Jim began easing their way back toward the boat, hoisting the net with hooks, closing it even further, shaking the spider crabs loose.

I could look down from the deck of the boat into the pound, which the three men had made much smaller by tightening the net. The fish knew they were trapped, and they looked panicked, flashing and bolting across the pound and around its edge, quick as lightning.

When Dan and Jim were about five feet from the boat, Joe extended a grooved plank to their dinghy and Jim used it to climb up on board. Joe grabbed a mechanical scoop net, and Jim, operating a pulley fastened to the cabin, lowered it into the pound, where Dan, who had his own scoop net, filled it with fish.

Joe called out, “O.K.” Jim switched on the pulley, lifting the scoop net over the deck and opening its bottom to spill fish into and over the edges of a plastic basin. The fish smacked together. Dan filled the scoop net twice more before the pound was empty. Then the men lowered themselves into the dinghies to reset the pound. I counted the catch — winter flounder, fluke, an eel, bonito and bluefish, lobster, moss bunkers, butterfish, scup, spider crabs and horseshoe crabs, squid, sea robin, skate, Spanish mackerel.

By 6:20 a.m. we were back around Orient Point, heading west in Gardiner’s Bay to repeat the routine at Dan’s six other nets. The sun suddenly was a dull orange disk above Plum Island. A tern cried as it flew past.

As he piloted the boat Dan told me pretty much what I had expected to hear: the fishing was not as good as it used to be. He said he was catching the same species as always but there were fewer of them: “You catch as much but you don’t catch as much of it,” Dan said.

He told me that the pollution scare of 1987 and 1988 — when medical waste was befouling beaches in New York and New Jersey — hurt him seriously. He sold some of his fish to the fish market near his dock in Greenport and sent the rest to Fulton Market. “Last year was the first time the guy I deal with called and said don’t send any more in,” he said.

At the time, there was a total ban on commercial fishing for striped bass, because of PCBs. Like all commercial fishermen, Dan believed the fears were exaggerated. When stripers were legal to keep, Dan would fish until Thanksgiving because bass are so numerous in the fall. At the season’s peak he would ship 200 60-pound cartons of bass every day for a week. Now, because of PCBs, Dan quits about October first. At the day’s first pound, when two fine specimens had thudded to the deck, Joe barely glanced at them. He grabbed them by the tails and flung them back into the Sound.

At the second net, in Peconic Bay, an osprey was sitting on a stake. “This is where the fish hawks get all their fish,” Dan said. “They just sit there and pick what they want.”

At the third net, every stake was a perch for a cormorant. “Especially in spring that net will be solid black with birds,” Dan said. “You get a couple of hundred birds on a trap, they can really do a job on them. Plus, they drive the stuff out.”

Black-backed gulls sailed behind us as the boat rumbled from one net to the next. They screeched in anticipation when a load of spider crabs — inedible and no good for bait — was dumped overboard. When the crabs hit the water the birds shut up, realizing that the crustaceans were not what they were hoping for.

The birds’ luck changed after the sixth net. Dan set the boat’s automatic pilot and the three men began cleaning bluefish: the belly of a large blue will sometimes hold a smaller fish, which will putrefy and ruin the bluefish. They worked fast, slicing open bellies with a ripping sound, scraping out the innards, which they tossed overboard, sending the gulls into a frenzy. The boat moved steadily forward, with Dan showing no concern as it neared the next pound. I stood alone in the cabin, looking from the pound, which was growing ever nearer, to Dan, who did not bother even to glance up. I held my tongue. The boat bore down on the pound net. I looked back at dan again. We were going to slam into the net. At exactly the right time – and at precisely the last second -- Dan quit cleaning bluefish, returned to the cabin, and guided the boat alongside the pound with such matter-of-factness that it could hardly even be called grace under pressure.

We were done by 9 a.m. At the fish market near the dock the men lifted the catch onto a platform, weighed the fish, and packed them with crushed ice in waxed-cardboard cartons. The market bought 45 pounds of Spanish mackerel, 17 pounds of bonito, 16 of squid, five of flounder, 12 of porgies, and 60 of bluefish. Dan, Joe, and Jim packed the remainder to be shipped to Fulton Fish Market — 370 pounds of blues and 48 pounds of porgies. They didn’t bother to weigh the bait fish, which they would sell to lobstermen and conch fishermen. The day’s total: 583 pounds of fish, or the equivalent of about 10 60-pound cartons. Five or six years ago, Dan said, he would ship 4,000 to 5,000 cartons a year to New York, half of them bass. Now he ships about 1,000. A decline on that scale takes its toll. Dan said only three crews fish pound nets on the North Fork of Long Island now. Two decades ago, he said, there were 25 or 30.

“It seems like every year you lose a few,” Dan said. “It’s something that a few years from now you probably won’t see any more.”

Burgundy with a Tea-Totaler and on a Budget

If I were to devise a personal definition of frustration, it might be this: being set free in Burgundy with a severely limited budget and accompanied by a wife who was three months pregnant and therefore not interested in even a moderate sampling of wine. Granted, a driving tour of France is not high on anyone's list of hardships. But for someone with an interest in wine, a visit to one of the world's great wine regions — some would say its greatest wine region — with a packet of traveller's checks notable for its thinness and a companion devoted to teatotaling can be a frustrating glimpse of what it might be like to spend a life in hell.
Burgundy — the wine, not the region — has become something of an obsession for me. To those who have fallen under its spell, it is the world's most intriguing wine.

"Something about Burgundy excites spirituality," Matt Kramer has written in his book, Making Sense of Burgundy. "Where Napa Valley restores hope that beauty has a future in the modern era and Bordeaux simply makes one want to live, so as to continue to sample its extraordinary array, Burgundy elicits a different emotion. Even the most skeptical are willing, after savoring a genuinely great Burgundy, to concede that there may well be — dare one say it? — a Presence in the universe beyond our own.

"One thing is clear: the Earth speaks in Burgundy as it does nowhere else. And the grapevine is its interpreter."

mearsault lable

It is that notion — the Earth speaking through the wine; the wine being the absolute essence of soil and rain and sunshine and wind — that is among wine's attractions. Kramer does not refer to the estimable food writer Waverly Root, but in Kramer’s 1990 book he is talking about precisely the same thing that Root talked about in his 1958 book, The Food of France: "…food, with the exception of a very few minerals, is made up of the living things, vegetable or animal, which spring from the soil of a region, the people of which are made, in the most literal sense, of the food they eat. … The land [forms] the food. The food [is] intimately and inextricably involved with the geography and the climate and the history and the habits and the culture — in short with the entire environment — of the land."

In an era of factory farms, agribusiness, and chemical pesticides, it is a notion with no little attractiveness — food and wine as part of an ecological system, part of an absolute connection to the good earth. And in the wines of Burgundy, it seems, that connection has reached its greatest manifestation.

And so I admit that Burgundy is approaching the level of an obsession with me, or if not an obsession, an unrealizable dream. It is a dream inspired by inaccessibility. I do not mean you cannot stride into a wine shop and buy any number of bottles of excellent Burgundy. You can — if, that is, you have the approximate income of a big league outfielder. Burgundy is not only arguably the world's finest wine, it is the world's most expensive wine — to the frugal wine-lover's great disadvantage. The laws of supply and demand are nowhere applied more starkly than in Burgundy. The total production of wine is tiny compared to other wine regions, and yet Burgundy aficionados abound, passionate about the wine and willing to buy it, bad vintage or good. If you are interested enough in wine to peruse the wine columns and journals and many books that serve as a consumer's guide to the cabernets and Cote Roties, the pinot noirs and riojas, the barolos and barbarescos, then Burgundy's greatness is a fact you must constantly confront — in the frustrating abstract.

We started our tour in Dijon, an ancient, dingy city of 150,000 people, described lovingly by M.F.K. Fisher in her book "Long Ago in France." She lived there as a young woman 64 years ago, the wife of an American student, serving her apprenticeship as both a cook and an eater. Her Dijon was an inexpensive provincial town not far removed from the Medieval days when it was the seat of the powerful Dukes of Burgundy, a town with superlative restaurants and chefs, where even the ordinary residents excelled in the kitchen — a town where, it was said, it was impossible to get a bad meal.

Nor did we get a bad meal, six decades later. What we did not get, though, was a Burgundian meal. We arrived in Dijon late on a rainy, dank Sunday afternoon and, after checking into our hotel, set out on foot and under umbrellas. We found the restaurant recommended by our hotel keeper, and it looked wonderful — dark and cheerful, filled with people earnestly and happily eating their Sunday evening dinner. Alas, we next learned what we were to learn elsewhere — that in Burgundy, if not in all of France, restaurants have only one seating for dinner, and if you arrive after all tables are taken your only choice is to look elsewhere.
We did, but on a Sunday night the options were limited, and so we settled on a Moroccan restaurant where we were served excellent couscous, rich and savory with lamb and chicken. It was a quality meal, but it was less than satisfactory. We were in the gateway to Burgundy, after all, the city in which it was impossible to get a bad meal, and if I had wanted to eat North African food I would have gone to North Africa. I ate, though, and tried to hide my disappointment. Monday was another day, and lunch another meal.

Like Sunday, Monday was dreary. It rained on and off. The facades of Dijon are almost uniformly earth-toned, a palate not shown to its best advantage under sodden, leaden skies. There is hardly a pastel or primary color to be seen. Unfortunately for us the Monday noon hour in Dijon is also an off-time for restaurants. Again we settled — this time for crepes. I was hungry after a morning of museums, and the crepes were a perfectly adequate lunch. But for my second meal in a famous gastronomic city at the head of Burgundy, it was thoroughly disappointing. Where were the rabbits, the beef, the kidney and liver and sweetbreads? Where, as Fisher wrote, were "the snipes hung so long they fell from their hooks, to be roasted then on cushions of toast softened with the paste of their rotted innards and fine brandy"?

Discouraged, I skipped wine at lunch.

That afternoon we drove into the heart of Burgundy, wending our way slowly through the Cote D'Or — the Golden Slope — as one might nibble at the charcuterie served before a meal to sharpen and preserve one's appetite for what followed. We cruised through the towns whose names on the direction signs, as Waverly Root put it, let you feel like a tiny insect crawling across a magnified wine card: Gevrey-Chambertin, Vosne-Romanée, Aloxe-Corton, Nuits-Saint-Georges. This was where my frustrations as a perspective Burgundy-drinker would at last be satisfied, I hoped.

To travel north-south along the Cote D'Or, you can drive the superhighway that has been strung along the base of the slope — which is perfect, say, for hastening to Pommard or Volnay if you have no interest in Vougeot — or drive the ancient hillside road past the vineyards and along the narrow village streets, noting the famous names here and there on the winegrowers' headquarters. It has been said that winegrowing country is generally not beautiful landscape, but this northern half of the 30-mile Cote d'Or — the Cote de Nuit — was pleasant countryside, even under gray skies.

We stopped in two villages — Aloxe-Corton and Savigny-les-Beaune — and rejected hotels in each as too expensive. We tracked down several houses with rooms to rent, but they were filled. Finally we proceeded to Beaune, the ancient town that is the capital of Burgundy and the halfway point on the route down the Cote D'Or.

savigny label

As we drove I was thinking both of Waverly Root and A.J. Liebling, who was a better writer than Root but who admired Root's first-rate book, "The Food of France," almost without reservation. Both lived in Paris as young men during the 1920s, the years of Hemingway and Gertrude Stein and the Lost Generation — though neither, apparently, found membership in that generation. (Root's amusing memoir of those years, "The Paris Edition," has a chapter called "I Never Knew Hemingway.") Both were too busy — Liebling as a nominal student at the Sorbonne who in reality was learning the gastronomic arts thanks to his father's unknowing largesse, and Root as a reporter and copy editor on the Paris edition of the Chicago Tribune and a kind of independent gustatory researcher whose studies peaked with the bi-weekly arrival of his paycheck.

I was thinking in particular of an incident that Liebling relates in his own memoir, "Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris." Liebling toured Burgundy as he was leaving France for America, via the Mediterranean port of Marseille. It is hard to think of a more perfect locale for him to pass a week in the country, unless perhaps it is Bordeaux, or maybe Provence, or perhaps the Emiglia-Romana region of Italy. He was a prodigious eater and drinker who considered wisdom at the table and the stamina to put it to good use to be qualities of the highest order. He joked about Proust in his book and how the memory of a madeleine inspired "Remembrance of Things Past": "In light of what Proust wrote with so mild a stimulus, it is the world's loss that he did not have a heartier appetite. On a dozen Gardiners Island oysters, a bowl of clam chowder, a peck of steamers, some bay scallops, three sautéed soft-shelled crabs, a few ears of fresh-picked corn, a thin swordfish steak of generous area, a pair of lobsters, and a Long Island duck, he might have written a masterpiece." (It is gratifyingly obvious that Liebling, who lived part of his adult years on the eastern end of Long Island, was partial to the good regional food of places other than France.)

While in the Cote d'Or he ate and drank on a scale that I can only call Liebling-esque, separating his repasts with long walks that allowed the effect of one huge meal to wear off while rekindling his appetite for the next. The young writer made friends with an inn-keeper, who, although French, was not from Burgundy. The inn-keeper saw in Liebling a chance to gain access to the best cellars of his town, Gevrey-Chambertin. Introducing Liebling as a rich American bootlegger, the inn-keeper led him from one vineyard to the next, sampling all the greatest bottles. "In that way," Liebling wrote, "I got to drink more good wine than most men are able to pay for in their lives. … At night I would stagger home to eat the jambon-persillé — parsley-flavored ham with mustard and pickles — that every meal began with, followed by hare or beef or fowl in a sauce of better wine than you could buy in other regions in labelled bottles. All the good wine I could drink came with the meals, but [the inn-keeper] had invented the bootlegger story to get at the superlative wine of the vineyardists. He was a Lorrainer, from Nancy or Metz, and so an outsider, possessing no vineyards of his own." In Burgundy, it seems, even some residents must conspire to get their hands on the good stuff.

Liebling was aware of what an awesome treat he was being given — even then Burgundy was twice as expensive as excellent wines from Bordeaux.

"Burgundy is a lovely thing," he concluded, "when you can get anybody to buy it for you."
I had no hope or expectation of getting anybody to buy it for me. The question was whether I would summon up the cash and the nerve — it takes some courage, I submit, to drink a $50 bottle with dinner — to buy it for myself.

The hotel we stayed at in Beaune was ancient and, from the outside, beautiful. The reception area was a stone cellar with vaulted-ceilinged chambers that you stepped down into from the narrow cobbled street and it was lined with bottles of wine, which could be bought from the hotel keeper. But the rooms were ugly and dark, and noisy, and the price, although moderate, was too steep for ugly, dark, and noisy. The hotelkeeper did, however, recommend a restaurant in town that looked excellent. We hurried to it through the rain, slogging along the streets that wind in a maze within the walls of the old city, walking past wine shops and shops that sold wine accessories. But when we entered the restaurant, the proprietor dismissed us with a wave of the hand — no room, all the tables were taken. Likewise we were turned away from two other establishments, until finally finding one, on the outskirts of town, that had two seats for us. We had a decent if not spectacular Burgundian meal and I, drinking alone and so restricted by temperance and fear-of-hangover to the list of half-bottles, chose a Haute Cote de Beaune. It was a drinkable bottle of pinot noir, young and fresh — a burgundy, true, but not the burgundy I had been envisioning and hoping for, the old, muscular wine with the gout de terroir, the taste of the land, that burgundy lovers cherish.

The next morning we packed up early and left the hotel. We visited the famous Hospice de Beaune, an ancient hospital that raises its operating funds by doubling as a wine merchant and auctioneer. We also stopped at a nearby cellar where a middle-aged man showed us around briefly, uncorked a keg and, using a long glass tool that resembled a turkey baster, drew out a tube full of red wine with which he filled a glass. The wine was delicious. But the man, under the misconception that he could speak coherent English, immediately began regaling us with a tale that I think had something to do with Thomas Jefferson, although I'm not certain. In our haste to escape this speed-talker, who used English words with a complete omission of syntax, making his monologue vaguely familiar but incomprehensible, I forgot the name of the cellar and the wine.

Our next stop was across the street, at the Marché aux Vins — the Wine Market. I knew this would be my chance to taste Burgundy, not just from one town or vintage but from many. At the Marché we were given a tastevin, a wide, shallow metal cup traditionally used for tasting wines in Burgundy. We descended into the catacombs. The long, low, vaulted passageways were lighted by dim bare bulbs and candles, and paved with gravel. Wine racks and bottles leaned against the walls. Every 10 feet or so was an upended keg on top of which sat a candle and an open bottle of wine — 19 kinds of wine in all: white burgundies, beaujolais, and lower-end red burgundies. Back upstairs, in the nave of an old church, was the real thing — 18 top-flight red burgundies.

bottles label

If not exactly heaven, what lay before could at least have been considered a version of paradise.

And yet it was 11 in the morning. And these wines were for tasting, not — in these circumstances, anyway — for lingering over: vino de meditazioni, wine to meditate over, as the Italians say.

When I had emerged, an hour or so later, into the surprisingly bright daylight of that overcast morning, I had sampled 15 of the 37 wines. White and red, young and old — an '85 Chassagne-Montrachet, an '88 Vosne-Romanée, an '89 Monthelie, an '83 Aloxe-Corton, a '77 Mussigny, a '78 Charmes-Chambertin. It was a wonderful experience. The old wines in particular were something completely different, transformed into a drink that was beyond my previous experience with wine.

But it was also a tease. It was not possible for me to justify buying any of those bottles, priced at $50 or $60 and higher (even though that was half or one-third what they would sell for in the United States). Wine is made to accompany food — "Food is the meaning of wine," as Matt Kramer put it — but I was tasting in a vacuum. What my $40 admission to the Marché aux Vins got me was an intriguing and seductive taste of Burgundy, but only a taste.

With lunch that day I drank a small pitcher of Passe-Tout-Grain, a wine produced of gamay and pinot noir grapes \. It was fresh and fruity, and I enjoyed it enough to have the waitress jot down its name for me — but it was not Burgundy. That afternoon we left the Cote d'Or and drove south through a downpour to the Beaujolais region, where the wine is priced far more accessibly than Burgundy. I had andouillette for dinner, accompanied by a half-bottle of Moulin-a-Vent, fresh and delicious, the way Beaujolais is supposed to be. But it was not Burgundy.

All of which is not to say that we did not have wonderful meals and wine in France. There was a memorable roasted quail and a hare stew with a bottle of Tavel in Provence. In Lyons, at the exciting, crowded, noisy little restaurants called les boucherons, there was a superlative veal liver, and the sweetest mussels I've ever eaten, and a carp cooked in red wine that tasted like the essence of a fresh-water lake on a plate, all accompanied by a pitcher of the Beaujolais village that serves as the house wine in bistros throughout France. Also in Lyons, there were baguettes and coffee for breakfast at the giant food market — Halle de Lyon, a fantastic place where the beauty and bounty of the displays of Roquefort, brie, blood oranges, grapes, leeks, haricots vert, Charolais beef, patés, blue-footed Bresse chickens, pheasants, brioche, turbot, and clams make up for the shopping-mall decor — followed in mid-morning by a couple dozen fresh oysters and two glasses glasses of muscadet.

We'll return to Burgundy someday. I'm already in training, working out on the cote de Rhones, the Australian sirahs, the South American cabernets that are affordable and drinkable — although I realize that moving on to Burgundy will be like preparing to face Tom Seaver by playing slow-pitch softball. And I will admit to having three or four bottles of the most inexpensive Burgundies stored away. I'll drink them sometime and try to capture some hint of what the real stuff, the good stuff, must be like.

Until then I'm resigned to echoing A.J. Liebling: Burgundy is a lovely thing, when you can get anybody to buy it for you.

auxey duresses label